I was wearing my smile after narrowly finishing my espresso and my new friend was wearing a military hat and hoping to go into law school after he graduated. After a few minutes of conversing, his friends arrived, and he began to talk about a roommate problem. This led to his declarations of confusion and mystery as to why his roommate would be upset with him. After going back and forth like a tennis match between the Williams sisters, he turned to me and said, “Dude, I just don’t like conflict.” I could see he was sincere and I asked this simple question in return: “What is War (motioning to his hat)?” He looked at me, slightly confused, and mumbled, “War is conflict.”
Conflict seems to have erupted around the President’s speech at the national prayer breakfast this past Thursday. Some say he didn’t mean it, and others with more liberal sensibilities praised him for his clear declaration of secular-branded faith. With all the voices around, weighing in on this statement or that one, it all can feel like a giant echo-chamber. One massive pong match. You see, every year a selection of congressman help to put on this event (the first Thursday of February) in order to meet, pray and discuss issues regarding not just religion; but war, the economy, business. Above all, the goal for these leaders is to network and…pray. This happens every year, and according to Wikipedia (yeah…I just cited Wikipedia) every president since Eisenhower has attended. Oh, did I forget to mention that it was founded as a Christ-centered forum? It is. This is why it is wise for the President to begin by addressing the top religious leaders in the audience who were outside of Christendom. They came to a meeting centered around Jesus. When did we ever see Jesus turning away a person because of religious affiliation?
Here is the kicker for many of us down in the wonderful south: The President was right in nearly every remark in his speech. Why deliberate whether or not he meant the things he said, or if some speech writer came up with the concepts and he simply parroted those statements? This type of criticism is a fruitless endeavor as only God can judge and weigh the heart. The speech given by our President was one of the most warm and intensely Jesus-centered talks I have ever heard from any political world leader. Imagine my surprise when the Obama-can-only-do-wrong (Dont worry, I see you Obama-can-only-do-right people too) camp came out and began to criticize the President for remarks they found spooky. Honestly folks, is this what Christianity has become? A club of nationalistic nail biters who are uniquely suspicious of everything?! Surely Jesus did not die on the cross so we could represent the fearful elite of the world? We are called to rise above and represent the last great movement in the 21st century: Christianity.
Think about the Daniel of the Bible. When he went up to King Nebuchadnezzar, the most wicked king mankind had ever seen, did he rub in the kings face his disagreements? Did he slander the man for his differing theology? How godly was Daniel if in giving his most condemning prophecy to the King, he took a moment to sincerely say, “I wish this was for someone else (Daniel 4:19).”? Where are the Daniels today among us?
I’ll tell you.
They are the one’s being accused of appeasement. They are the one’s accused of not being religious enough. They are the one’s being accused of not holding a strong commitment to Christian values simply because they don’t think it okay to pretend that our primary problem is a left-leaning democrat. The Daniel’s of today acknowledge the wrong in an administration, but they also seek to spread the Kingdom, which is like a mustard seed that needs time to grow. How many of us have traded our prophetic witness to the state so that we make take sides and join the fight to be the next chaplain of the empire? For we are in the world but not “of” the world (John 15:19).
What did the President actually say?
Quotes from the speech:
“All praise and honor to God…”
Oh, wow. Okay…I didn’t see that one coming.
“For 63 years this prayer tradition has brought us together, giving us the opportunity to come together in humility before the Almighty and to be reminded of what it is we share as children of God.”
“He [The Lord] has been there for all of us, and has certainly strengthened me through the power of His Spirit.”
Anyone who works in peacemaking, whether that is between two groups or two people, knows that if you as the reconciler takes a side the objective of peace is nearly impossible. You have to stop and consider both sides and take the side of the Divine. This is the only way in which we can learn to forgive one another and walk in the fragrance of unity within diversity. The President quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously stated that God made it look hard in Washington for its leaders to do anything without prayer. Is this not the only solution to the insurmountable problems in our country? It’s starting to sound like a sermon!
“I believe that the starting point of faith is some [self] doubt.”
How can any Christian disagree with this statement? Self-doubt is an important part to the journey. If we were all confident in ourselves we might miss the still voice of God, who is anything but conventional. If Gideon were deeply committed to convention, he would not have obeyed God when God asked him to destroy the idols in his village. Everyone worshipped these idols. It’s what they did. This was the mandate, but all it took was one little shy guy to be off doing something he shouldn’t have so that he could hear the voice he needed to.
“Our job is not to ask God to respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing.”
How much of God did Abraham understand before he got marked down in the hall of fame of faith (Hebrews 11)? Not very much. An overconfidence in self can lead to a neglect of the voice and leading of the Spirit of God. We who claim to follow Jesus keep His commandments and only do so by the ability to hear His voice.
“Now, over the last few months we have seen a number of challenges…but what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we have seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil. As we speak around the world we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another…We see faith driving us to do right. But we also see faith being twisted and distorted. Used as a wedge, or worse, sometimes used as a weapon…How do we as people of faith reconcile these realities?”
I love this! The President rightly defines “faith” as a generated culture of possibilities within the human heart. We all have faith, religious and secular alike, and that faith is beyond belief. It is the event by which belief is then constructed. Faith requires tenacity and courage to be (as Tillich would say), and should be an affront to unbelief, which is negative faith. Negative faith is the generated culture of no possibilities.
The President went as far to say that there is a “sinful” tendency to distort the good of faith. When he says, with a graceful disposition, that violence associated with religion is “twisted,” it is another way of saying that this violent expression of religion is not pure but perverted. Perversion is defined simply as the “wrong version.” Who could disagree with this incredible observation? We stare in amazement at the seemingly unstoppable power of ISIL and their bloodthirsty confession of the Qu’ran, claiming to be the only true expression of Islam on the earth. We mock Muslims who don’t speak out more and act as though peaceful Muslims are irrelevant? Why do we stand behind our tall fences, when we know that as close as 400 years ago, men (protestant and catholic) killed and massacred in the name of Christ. None of us would say that is another expression of our faith, would we? Of course not! The worst of religion (the inquisitions and the crusades) is the same as the worst of secularism (Stalin and Mao): a mixture of its values and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is the problem. It is perversion, whether you are religious or not.
What I find confusing is the amount of evangelicals who look upon the actions of the king of Jordan, and his response to ISIL by killing the terrorists in his prison, and yell back to Obama, “You see, that is how you ought to do it!” Really? Killing. Is that our recourse?
You can not be the hand of healing if you are to also be the hand of sickness. So when we listen to the speech given by our President, we should rejoice that there is a political leader who sees the problem for what it is. Let us be unafraid in our disagreements and equally unafraid in our love for another. We need to recognize truth, wherever we find it, as God’s truth.
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set your free.”-Jesus
Back to my coffee shop conversation:”What is War?” I said. “War, is the inability to have conflict*.”
*The last quote is not original to me, but it is original to an Irish comedian by the name of Dylan Moran. Brilliant comedian. Achingly true observations.